On the Hook
The Justice Department's dogged prosecution of David Safavian has many scratching their heads.
To many, the name David Safavian is synonymous with Jack Abramoff, cronyism and luxurious international getaways. But for some who have watched the circuitous case of the Bush administration's former top procurement official unfold, Safavian personifies a far less conventional image: that of an unaccountable Justice Department obsessed with collecting headlines and high-profile scalps.
Safavian has been in the crosshairs of federal prosecutors for the past five years over his relationship with Abramoff, a former lobbyist imprisoned for influencing government officials with extravagant gifts and trips. Safavian's first trial ended in a conviction, but an appeals court overturned the decision. He recently was re-indicted, and a new trial is expected to begin in December.
With Safavian, a character most describe as a small fish in Abramoff's big pond of infamous associates, the Justice Department's fervor in this case has many scratching their heads. "It's been overkill from the very beginning," says Stanley Brand, a specialist in ethics law. "I just don't know what else they want from the guy. . . . They should just move on."
The ex-administrator of federal procurement policy at the Office of Management Budget, Safavian was the highest ranking government official to be convicted in the Abramoff scandal. In the summer of 2002, while serving as chief of staff at the General Services Administration, Safavian traveled with Abramoff-a friend for about 20 years-and several others to Scotland and London for a weekend of golfing.
Prior to the trip, Safavian solicited the opinion of a GSA ethics officer about the appropriateness of accepting free travel from Abramoff. Safavian said at the time that Abramoff did not have business with GSA. The ethics officer wrote that Safavian could accept the trip for free. Nonetheless, before the trip began, Safavian wrote Abramoff a check for $3,100-a figure that the lobbyist suggested would cover his portion of the costs, but which was not enough.
Safavian's allies say he had no reason to lie because he was under no compulsion to pay for any part of the trip. "David is the type of person who tries to follow the rules and he did," says a friend and former government colleague of Safavian who spoke on condition of anonymity. "That this could happen to him over an action like this is pure insanity."
Prosecutors say Safavian knew his expenses were significantly higher than $3,100. They add that Abramoff had been consulting with Safavian about opportunities to purchase a pair of GSA properties and therefore had business with the agency. In June 2006, Safavian was convicted of making false statements to Senate investigators, the GSA ethics official and the agency's inspector general, and of obstructing an investigation. He was cleared on a fifth charge and sentenced to 18 months in prison.
In June, an appeals court threw out two of the charges, chiding federal lawyers for presenting "tenuous" legal arguments. The court ruled that the district court had "abused its authority" by failing to allow Safavian's attorneys to call an expert witness to explain how government contracting officials view the issue of "having business" with GSA.
Despite the rebuke, prosecutors, who declined to comment for this story, pressed on with their case. In October, they re-indicted Safavian, adding two charges: lying on a financial disclosure form and providing false statements to the FBI, both about the golf trip. Safavian's attorney, Richard A. Sauber, has filed a motion to dismiss the new counts on the grounds of malicious prosecution. "It's one stupid incident, and they have managed to construct five felony charges," says Sauber, whose firm took the case gratis. "It's a little bit overboard. Enough is enough. This is really not the crime of the century, let alone a crime."
Justice views the Abramoff case as a top priority and might be unwilling to let one of its key targets in the investigation off the hook without a conviction, Sauber suggests. Others say the case against Safavian has less to do with public corruption and more to do with intimidation and flexing prosecutorial muscle. Safavian is the only Abramoff defendant to reject a plea deal, and his friends say prosecutors wanted to make an example of him.
Brand adds that the Justice Department "wants to have a perfect record. And it's hard to get them to come off a case that they are vested in."
Safavian was an unlikely target for a public corruption probe, friends say. The product of a middle-class family, he spent most of his career earning a modest salary in the public service, although he did work for a brief time as a Washington lobbyist.
In a new book about the Abramoff case, The Perfect Villain (Martin & Lawrence Press, 2008) by Gary Chafetz, the lobbyist described how he wined and dined key figures he was looking to influence, but one of the only people never to accept a free meal was Safavian. Abramoff added that he was distraught over the verdict in the Safavian case. "He says he would prefer to add five years to his sentence rather than have Safavian go to prison," the author writes. Abramoff did not testify in the first trial but is likely to take the stand in the new case.
No matter what happens in the new trial, Safavian's friends say the damage to his reputation has been done. He's been characterized as a corrupt Abramoff crony on the front pages of national newspapers and likely will never work in government again or practice law. He's spent millions of dollars in legal fees and is in considerable debt.
"Even in their extreme scenario, this was a man who paid less for a trip than he was supposed to," says the former colleague. "He was bankrupted. He has been ruined. He has been humiliated. He has been through three and a half years of hell. Assuming this was a crime, which it was not, how was this justified? He didn't get jobs, payoffs or dinners every night. How was this justified?"